Politics Blog: After pandemic, we must guard against return of austerity

Toronto – May 21, 2020 – While Canada is still in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic, our efforts in physical distancing and other measures have helped slow the spread of the coronavirus, to the point where governments are now looking at slowly reopening parts of the economy. But as we look further into the future of what Canada may look like post-pandemic, we must be wary of those who will once again be calling for austerity.

Corporate elites have remained fairly quiet in the face of government moves to help people weather the crisis with major public spending on programs like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). These programs have garnered the support of most Canadians, and thanks to the work of the labour movement and the New Democratic Party (NDP), the federal Liberals have been pushed to do even more for those in greatest need of support.

COVID-19 has revealed some ugly truths to Canadians. Decades of austerity, tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, privatization, and cuts to health care and education left the country struggling to respond to the pandemic, while also exposing the fact that too many workers are just a few dollars away from economic hardship.

Recent polling shows a clear majority of Canadians agree that COVID-19 has exposed how poorly workers and the elderly have been treated, as well as the social inequality that has been created by the austerity agenda. The same polling also shows that almost three-quarters of Canadians now expect a broad transformation of society, with a majority expecting to see major social reforms prioritizing health and wellbeing. One positive aspect of the pandemic is a renewed recognition of the role that government can play in creating a more just society.

But let us not be fooled into complacency. We cannot forget that those who peddle the austerity agenda are not about to give up without a fight to protect the interests of the rich and powerful.

Provinces with conservative governments have already begun to wield the austerity axe. In Alberta, the government laid off over 20,000 education workers and it is still moving ahead with its budgeted agenda of cuts to health care and other public services. In Manitoba, the government is pondering some of the largest cuts to the public sector in decades.

The voices of austerity are beginning to raise their ugly heads with their same old mantra of “we can’t afford it.” Jack Mintz, the go-to economist of the right, has recently written that public sector workers are too secure, and with heavy job losses in the private sector, there must be corresponding losses and rollbacks in the public sector. Another conservative economist, Phill Cross of the Fraser Institute, claims that we will need to cut public sector wages by 20 percent coming out of the pandemic.

Former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, meanwhile, recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the case for austerity may encounter serious resistance due to COVID-19, and that public leaders must convince people that we can’t afford new social spending.

Mintz, Cross, and Harper have all been appointed to Alberta’s emergency economic panel to help the province recover economically, and it isn’t hard to guess what they will recommend: lower taxes for corporations and the wealthy, more privatization and pay cuts, and the elimination of public sector jobs and regulations – like health and safety standards – that protect working people.

These elites have had their way for decades, and while a small few have become enormously wealthy, more and more Canadians are struggling to survive as income inequality continues to worsen.

Conservatives across the country are now worried that COVID-19 has opened the eyes of many Canadians to the failure of the austerity agenda, and that people might finally start to demand something better.

As we grapple with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, now is not the time for austerity. Now is the time to invest in workers and our public services, to provide safe working conditions, to invest in a new green economy, to ensure that our seniors are properly cared for, and that our health care system can withstand any challenges that may arise. Now is the time to invest in all Canadians, and to say “No!” to those who are peddling more austerity.